A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 13, 2010 Volume 40 / Number 6

 

COMMENTARY

CSU, Chico Leads in Free Press for Students

California is the leading state when it comes to protecting free press rights for students. And CSU, Chico has established itself as a leading university in California when it comes to ensuring press freedoms at the college level.

As faculty adviser to The Orion, I voiced those opinions and provided some recent history on freedom of the collegiate press during an April 15 panel discussion organized by Zach Justus, Communication Studies, entitled, “How free is your speech?” Other panelists included Deborah McCabe, Communication Studies; Michael Coyle, Political Science; and David Hacker of the Alliance Defense Fund. “Crossfire” this forum was not. It was a thought-provoking and thoroughly civil conversation.

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a notorious decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that gave principals at public high schools the authority to censor student newspapers “... so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Hazelwood essentially forced high school students to relinquish their free press rights at the schoolhouse gate. California was the only state not affected by Hazelwood because of a 1979 education code provision that generally allows student journalists to operate free from administrative restraint. Colleges and universities were not included in those ed code safeguards because it was thought that post-secondary students already had the strongest protection: the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution.

That notion was severely shaken in 2005 as a result of a messy case out of Illinois, Hosty v. Carter, in which a federal court cited Hazelwood to support administrative censorship at Governors State University, a public institution. The opinion stunned free press advocates, who worried that it swung open the barn door for would-be censors. Indeed, a mere 10 days after the Hosty decision, the general counsel of the California State University system sent a memo to university presidents asserting that Hosty “appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized students newspapers ... ”

In response to Hosty, such organizations as the Student Press Law Center counseled student journalists to seek to have their newspapers designated as “public forums” by their colleges. Such a designation was viewed as a way to preclude censorship, and editors of The Orion requested that University President Paul Zingg so designate The Orion. CSU legal counsel advised Zingg against this.

Zingg’s decision came in a letter dated Nov. 1, 2005, to The Orion staff. Zingg wrote that foremost among the reasons for the newspaper’s successes through the years is “... the freedom you have to produce the paper yourselves without editorial influence. ... I support freedom of speech and freedom of the press completely and vigorously, and will not censor or allow others to censor The Orion.” In closing, Zingg wrote: “So, to be clear, I will follow the advice of CSU legal counsel and not designate The Orion as a ‘public forum,’ but I will not invoke Hosty v. Carter, or any other pretenses, to abridge the full and responsible exercise of freedom of the press by The Orion. ... [Nothing] is more important or vital than [The Orion’s] ability to operate free of censorship and editorial constraint.”

In response to Hosty in 2006, the governor signed into law Assembly Bill 2581, which prohibits public college administrators from disciplining students for speech that would be considered constitutionally protected off campus. Still, at an important and uncertain moment, Zingg’s letter to The Orion was the strongest administrative voice in support of a free student press at the university level in a state known for valuing such freedoms.

David Waddell is the faculty advisor to The Orion.